A few huge updates from Facebook this week are worth paying attention to.
First, the company announced the removal of “70 Facebook and 65 Instagram accounts — as well as 138 Facebook Pages — that were controlled by the Russia-based Internet Research Agency (IRA).” Facebook also removed any ads associated with the IRA pages. In an unusual bit of transparency, the company provided stats of what was deleted and who those pages were targeting:
Of the Pages that had content, the vast majority of them (95%) were in Russian — targeted either at people living in Russia or Russian-speakers around the world including from neighboring countries like Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine.
Facebook also provided a few samples from the pages as well as ad samples, none of which were written in English. “The IRA has consistently used inauthentic accounts to deceive and manipulate people,” the announcement said. “It’s why we remove every account we find that is linked to the organization — whether linked to activity in the US, Russia or elsewhere.”
CEO Mark Zuckerberg reiterated IRA’s global reach in a post on his personal page, saying, “Most of our actions against the IRA to date have been to prevent them from interfering in foreign elections. This update is about taking down their pages targeting people living in Russia. This Russian agency has repeatedly acted deceptively and tried to manipulate people in the US, Europe, and Russia -- and we don't want them on Facebook anywhere in the world.”
Facebook also announced an updated terms of service and data policy that the company claims will be easier for users to understand. “It’s important to show people in black and white how our products work – it’s one of the ways people can make informed decisions about their privacy,” the announcement reads. “So we’re proposing updates to our terms of service that include our commitments to everyone using Facebook. We explain the services we offer in language that’s easier to read. We’re also updating our data policy to better spell out what data we collect and how we use it in Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and other products.”
Finally, Facebook announced major changes to how third parties can interact with and collect data. The company acknowledged that the number of users whose data was being illegally used by Cambridge Analytica -- reported to be 50 million -- was actually 87 million. Facebook promised, “Overall, we believe these changes will better protect people’s information while still enabling developers to create useful experiences. We know we have more work to do — and we’ll keep you updated as we make more changes.”
Facebook is finally responding to consumer pressure in a systematic way. These changes will curb the amount of propaganda users are exposed to, limit how third parties can interact with users on the platform, and make the rules of the road clearer for everyone.
It’s important to note that all of these changes appear to be global, not limited to specific countries, which is good because the problems Facebook has caused are also global. Facebook has been weaponized by hostile actors seeking to manipulate users in dozens of countries. Facebook employees have admitted, on the company's Hard Questions Blog, that Facebook as a platform can be harmful to democracy. Facebook’s ability to reach people across the world is unprecedented in scale, and because of this, there’s no institution or government with the ability to regulate Facebook and protect the totality of its users.
We have Facebook on the defensive, but they’re going to change only as much as it’s pressured to change. Tech lawyer and privacy advocate Tiffany Li, in an op-ed for NBC News, has identified three groups of stakeholders Facebook needs to appease in order to save their company: “shareholders, policymakers, and of course, consumers.” I like her categorization but would add that Facebook needs to appease these three groups in countries across the globe, not just in the U.S., U.K., and European Union nations.
This isn’t a problem that can be solved overnight, something Zuckerberg acknowledged when he spoke with Vox’s Ezra Klein this week, saying, “I think we will dig through this hole, but it will take a few years. I wish I could solve all these issues in three months or six months, but I just think the reality is that solving some of these questions is just going to take a longer period of time.” Generally, I’m a Zuckerberg critic, but I appreciate this comment and agree we’re in for a turbulent couple of years coming to grips with everything.
Here’s the good news. Thanks to social media (including Facebook!) we’re more connected than ever before. Facebook’s users have an opportunity to have a global conversation about what changes are needed and take any activist campaigns or direct actions global. We can pressure multiple governments, work with civil society groups in multiple countries, and create a global consumer movement.
Facebook still has a long way to go and it’s users have 87 million (or 2 billion) reasons to be upset. The company has a lot do before it can earn back the trust of their consumers across the globe. That said, I appreciate that Facebook is finally taking some decisive action, even as they acknowledge curbing abuse of all kinds on the platform will be an ongoing battle. It’s a welcome correction to the company’s PR apology tour, adding action to words that would otherwise ring hollow. To be clear: Facebook was forced to take these actions thanks to global activism and consumer pressure. We have the momentum to force needed systemic changes. Let’s keep at it.
Media Matters is calling on Facebook to ban any entity, be it the Trump campaign or any other, that is using a copy of Cambridge Analytica's data or any other data set acquired by cheating.